It began in March when Jo’s thoughts turned to her garden. She lived on the moor to the West of the island. The bungalows on her lane sat cheek by jowl, their gardens stretching up the slope. The trees were so bent by Atlantic gales, they grew at thirty degrees. Jo beheld them with a sense of fellow-feeling. Most of Jo’s garden was shadowed by Hell’s Tor to the East. Not that Jo minded. Her hydrangeas liked the shade, as did her Creeping Jenny. And the primroses opened their little faces in the hedgerow despite it.
But there was a sliver of garden at the top of the hill which always caught the sun. Jo decided to create a decking platform in this spot. Then she built a firepit with house bricks. She got a flat pack pergola, assembled it with a modicum of coarse language, and painted it egg-shell blue. She found a charming ornamental bird bath in a bric-a-brac shop by the port. Pond skaters quickly made it their home. What a terrifying existence, Jo thought, watching them paddle across. The smallest change to surface tension, and they’d be sucked into the abyss. But was anyone’s existence less precarious? She bought a mature wisteria and guided its tendrils around the joists of her pergola.
This part of the garden would be her sun trap for the approaching summer. She planned to sit there, her feet in a tub of cool water, and read her book till her husband took a hint and made tea. To give him his due, he had helped with the varnishing.
While she worked, Jo couldn’t help but look into her neighbour’s garden. She tried not to be judgemental, but the man’s land was a minefield of dog’s doings. The offending animal could be seen behind sliding glass doors. It was some breed of fighting dog, a bitch. From time to time, Jo’s neighbour would open his patio doors and the dog would have her monthlies on the patio, leaving a gory splash on the concrete slabs. Jo longed to hose it down, but the Atlantic gales meant rain got there first.
And the animal never stopped barking. Jo removed the battery from her hearing aid as she worked. Sometimes, when she put it back in, the barking had stopped. She’d see the dog behind the glass, in a kind of bliss as the neighbour stroked its ears. It was disconcerting, really, how the man always wore a T-shirt, tracksuit bottoms and sliders. The light reflected off his glasses as he stood watching Jo work.
Embarrassingly, Jo couldn’t remember her neighbour’s name. Neither could her husband. She’d taken round some jam, after they bought the bungalow, then seen the jar, still full, in his recycling tub the next day. Perhaps he was diabetic.
And then there was the matter of his front garden: It was a riot of Pampas grass. When they first moved West, her sister spoke of a code in rural areas. Apparently, people grew Pampas grass to signify that they were available for swinging. Jo was fairly sure her sister was mocking her, as she was wont to do, but if ever some Pampas grass took seed in her garden, she pulled it out at the root.
Which sister was happiest now? Jo thought. After three months of labours and extravagant expense, her sun trap was complete. While her sister festered in a flat in Sydenham, Jo gazed at the ruby embers of her fire pit, sniffed the aromas of roasting lamb, listened to corncrakes, sipped cold Cava, and looked out over gnarled trees to the ocean below.
Not a soul stood between Jo and New York, three thousand miles away.
For once, she was wearing her hearing aid, and heard the clack of his sliders.
Her neighbour was wearing a freshly ironed shirt, which was odd. The dog was looking pensively at him from behind the double glazing. The man had a ring binder in his hand. Jo had a strong feeling that she was about to be sold something.
‘You’ve done a wonderful job here.’
‘Thank you uh-‘
‘Ian. That’s right. Ian.’
Ian was wearing a pair of varifocals. Their lenses darkened in the sun, so Jo couldn’t see his eyes. She was feeling slightly buzzed off the wine.
‘You must come round for a drink one evening, Ian. This spot catches the sun till nightfall. And it’s so sheltered.’
‘Yes.’ He looked down at the sea and back at Jo. ‘About that. This part of your garden is actually my land.’
“You see how the hedge stops there? It’s on my deeds.’ He passed the ring binder to her. There was an orange post-it note on the relevant page. ‘I’ve been meaning to say since you moved in.’
‘We moved in three years ago.’
‘It’s not an easy thing to bring up’
The dog was on its hind legs, its face almost obscured by steam and drool on the glass.
‘The previous owners never said–‘
‘They wanted a quick sale. They were getting divorced. We had not resolved the boundary issue.’
Jo’s mouth was parched. Her kebabs were starting to burn.
‘Obviously you’ll want to keep this land now. Now you’ve done all this,’ he said.
‘I should think so.’
Ian held out his hand for the ring binder, and she passed it back. ‘I spoke to my solicitor. I’m happy to sell it for eight thousand pounds.’ Ian waggled a finger at his house and the bitch rolled on her back.
After her husband went to bed, Jo dug out the deeds. The horrible little man was right. A wakeful night did not provide a solution. Jo couldn’t sleep the following night either. Or the one after that. Her husband was like the Ready Brek kid, radiating heat, making it impossible for a person to sleep. And this was a problem she needed to sleep on. Perhaps meditation would help…
But when Jo was at Yoga class doing a wide legged forward fold, her head dangling between her knees like an over-ripe fruit, she was surprised to notice a body under the community hall stage. He had been bundled there in haste: a retirement age man in varifocals with a bloated face and multiple knife wounds to his chest. Jo would have taken a closer look, but they were instructed to stand for tree pose. And then Shelley, from the post office, kept her talking all the way to her car.
A day later, Jo was driving down a single-track lane to the ferry when she passed an arm protruding from the hedgerow, it’s fingers curled in an anguished claw. She was heading to the mainland to by a new mattress.
‘Why do you want the mattresses with memory foam, madam?’
‘I’ve heard they’re very cooling if you’re a hot sleeper, if you see what I mean?’
‘I do, but I think that might be more to do with your bedding.’
Was he implying she bought synthetic sheets?
‘People don’t change their mattresses enough,’ he said. ‘Do you know we spend a third of our lives in bed?’
‘Maybe a quarter of my life. More likely a fifth. But my husband probably spends half his life in bed.’
‘Do you ever wake up with back pain?’ he asked.
Jo was led to a zip-and-link divan which separated into twins. But it was difficult to focus on the product spec. There was an ostentatious four poster bed in the middle of the shop floor and Ian’s garotted body dangled from the swags.
‘I’m sure he won’t go through with it,’ Jo’s sister said on the phone.
‘Of course he will.’
‘What does Bill think?’
‘Not told him. His reaction will irritate me.’
‘You don’t know that.’
Ian’s formal offer of sale arrived with the post. The man lived next door: what a waste of a stamp. Eight thousand pounds plus his conveyancing costs. Jo had two weeks to respond. She had nine hundred pounds in her savings account.
That night, Jo ran a relaxing bath. At the end of her garden, the duck egg blue of her sun trap was bathed in a beautiful golden light. But she couldn’t bear to go up there and let Ian see her enjoying it.
Jo tested the temperature of the bath water and was about step in, when she saw Ian lying under the surface. There was a block of concrete round his feet and fish had eaten his eyes.
‘Have you ever had intrusive visions?’ she asked Shelley the next day.
‘What are they?’ Shelley wasn’t very bright but was always interested in what Jo had to say.
‘It’s when you see strange things to prepare you for what you may, or may not, be about to do.’
‘You mean like the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel?’
‘In a manner of speaking…’
But Shelley from the Post Office had never had intrusive visions, and Jo surmised from her undivided attention that she couldn’t see Ian being dragged down the road by a passing tractor.
‘I worry about you,’ Jo’s sister said on the phone.
‘Don’t. It’s sorted. I’m going to be like Margaret Thatcher and not give in to terrorists.’
‘You hated Margaret Thatcher.’
“I’ve voted Conservative in the last two elections.”
Jo told Bill to fill four canisters of petrol at the garage by the port. She cooked up a story about Brexit shortages. At the post office, she bought three boxes of long matches. She took the piles of old newspapers she kept for Bill’s guinea pig, scrunched them up, and arranged them under the pergola. She was sad about the Wisteria, but that was life.
The night before Ian’s offer expired, Jo planned to strike a match. It would be a Thelma and Louise act of empowerment and not at all like destroying three months of graft. Jo even pictured stripping off and dancing round the flames with bacchanalian abandon. She might go to the house afterwards and have sex with Bill. The very next day she’d tell Ian he could have his land.
On the last day of May, Jo stood before her sun trap with her canisters of petrol. She was not a religious person, but as she beheld the duck egg blue of the pergola, she felt a eulogy was in order. The dog was howling again. She removed her hearing aids to create some solemnity, and sprang back when Ian tapped her arm.
He was red in the face from running up his garden. The varifocals were gone and she could see the whites of his eyes.
‘Please,’ he said breathlessly, beckoning her back to his house.
On his kitchen floor, the dog was lying on her side. The bitch’s eyes were rolling. She was panting fast. What looked like a wet gerbil was trying to attach to her teat.
‘Daisy’s having her litter,’ Ian said, and at that moment a little jelly bag came out of the bitch in a mess of blood, ‘and I’ve never done this before.’
The poor animal bit open the jelly bag and licked the mucus off the pup so that it could breathe. It opened it’s mouth and it’s tiny canines were like little fish bones. Daisy’s head fell back to the floor, her tongue lolling.
Jo was suddenly reminded of her German Shepherd, Sheba. She had loved that dog. Sheba had slept between Jo and Bill for the first three years of their marriage. Perhaps that had been a mistake.
The jelly bags were coming fast now – too many coming out at one time. But Daisy wasn’t lifting her head to bite open the bags. She’d given up.
Jo went to the sink and washed her hands.
‘They’ll suffocate, ’ she said. She got to her knees, tore the bags open, and rubbed the pups’ faces with a tea towel. ‘Are you going to help you stupid man?’
Jo had freed five pups from their bags and Ian had opened two more before Daisy was finished. Jo rubbed the little pups’ chests till they opened their mouths and carefully attached them to Daisy’s nipples. The smallest one couldn’t get purchase.
‘You’ll have to feed that one,’ she said.
‘With a bottle?’
‘Every hour through the night. You should have had Daisy spayed.’
Ian sank to the floor and stroked Daisy’s ears. The poor dog wagged her tail. She seemed to really love the nasty man.
‘Good luck finding homes for them. You may have to drown them.’
‘Drown them?’ Ian looked at Jo with ill-concealed mirth. ‘Pit bull pups go for two grand each.’
Jo stood up. ‘Let me get this right: I’ve saved you fourteen thousand pounds tonight, and you want to take my sun trap?’
‘I’m very grateful, of course. Would you like a cup of tea?’
‘I do not want a cup of tea. I should call the RSPCA. You never walk that dog. And I bet you won’t get those puppies vaccinated. A neighbour can be the best friend or the worst enemy.’ Jo felt like Margaret Thatcher staring down Gerry Adams.
‘Speaking hypothetically, what would you offer for the land?’
‘I have nine hundred pounds.’
Ian stroked Daisy’s ears. ‘You have a deal.’
The following week, Jo sat in her sun trap with a chilled glass of Cava. For seven days, Jo had seen nothing more gruesome than her husband’s feet. She watched as Ian passed down the lane with a saddle-sore Daisy at his heel. Jo stroked the tiny pup suckling on a bottle in her lap. There was no denying it, it was a quite a sweet little thing, really.
Devon-based writer, Lucy Bell, is current recipient of the Kevin Elyot Award based at Bristol Theatre Archive and the Ronald Duncan Playwriting Award. She has written for Western Morning News, Portsmouth News, The Stage and Exeunt and started writing prose after attending a short story course at Goldsmiths University. Twitter: @LucyBellSW Documental Theatre @Documentaltheat